Pro/File: All in Good Time


Paul James de Benedictis
Photo: Rick English

It's not often that you hear the likes of Branford Marsalis or Jeff Lorber jamming to the accompaniment of Russian string players — in surround sound, no less — but composer Paul James de Benedictis's sublime new album,Quintets(Mnemonic, 2008), offers just such a musical fusion.

The idea behind Quintets — which de Benedictis recorded over a period of ten years using a variety of analog and digital gear — was to write chamber-music parts for string quartet and create a looser framework for soloists to interpret and improvise their parts. “I chose the musicians first,” he says. “I started writing parts for each person after I got their yes.”

At first, de Benedictis intended to play the piano parts himself. But “my improvised solos were not what I was hearing for the music,” he says. And rather than try to cobble together a performance with technology, he thought of who could play the parts and found friends who said they would do it.

Fortunately, de Benedictis accumulated some talented friends during his years at Opcode Systems, the California-based company that created Studio Vision, the first digital audio sequencer. De Benedictis was Opcode's first employee, and over the years, his day job brought “Paul dB” into contact with many top musicians, including Marsalis, Lorber, Michael Lang, and others.

When the Quintets project was getting under way in the late 1990s, de Benedictis was using Studio Vision (with Digidesign Pro Tools TDM hardware) and an E-mu Proteus 2 synth module to compose, creating printable scores in Opcode's notation program, Overture. “My current rig consists of a dual 2 GHz Mac G5 and a small Pro Tools HD setup with two DSP Farms, a 192 I/O, and a Dangerous Music 2-Bus analog [summing amplifier] for summing and for mixing back into Pro Tools,” says de Benedictis, who points out that Opcode's Dave Oppenheim helped enhance Pro Tools' MIDI features. “I also use Apple Logic for some composing, especially for the notation view.”

When de Benedictis brought the printed scores to the Arlekin String Quartet, he discovered the limitations of composing with sampled sounds. “By sketching the string quartets out and using the synthesizers as a crutch, I forced violins to interact in ways that don't work as well when they play live and have to listen to each other,” he explains. Enlisting another friend, former Frank Zappa musical director Scott Thunes, de Benedictis altered the score to be more playable.

Once the arrangements were working, de Benedictis brought in Tom Carr at the Music Annex in Menlo Park, California, to record the strings. Carr used six mics — one for each string player and two room mics — through a Neve console, tracking to 24-track analog tape with Dolby SR for maximum sound quality (one track was striped with SMPTE for syncing to DAWs). The solo instruments were recorded at various facilities, including Lorber's, Marsalis's, and de Benedictis's respective home studios, and — at the behest of pianist Lang — at a Fazioli piano dealership with an on-site studio.

The remote tracks were eventually printed to the 24-track tape before being transferred to Steinberg Nuendo at 24-bit, 96 kHz for the stereo and surround mixes, which were engineered by Michael Romanowski. “The mixes in the surround are what I was hearing when I conceived the piece,” de Benedictis says. “There's a lot going on — it's intricate — and the surround really makes a difference.”


Home base: Menlo Park, California

Software used: Digidesign Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Opcode Studio Vision and Overture

Key hardware: Digidesign 192 I/O, Dangerous Music 2-Bus